Patrick Ewing is Georgetown's biggest name, but it'll take more than that to win
After years as an NBA assistant, Ewing faces the tough task of making his alma mater relevant again
Georgetown, for the first time a long time, is interesting.
But interesting doesn’t mean good. Interesting doesn’t guarantee anything other than immediate response and easy press. And with the hire of the greatest Hoya ever, Patrick Ewing, the school’s administration earns exactly that on the day of college basketball’s national title game. The school also opted to keep things in the family -- the Thompson family.
Ewing isn’t tied to that family by blood, but he’s without question an extension of the John Thompson Jr. monarchy. For almost five decades now, Georgetown has been coached by someone affixed to the Thompson name. The man responsible for Georgetown being “Georgetown” is Big John. No. 2 on that list is Ewing, who changed the course of a school and a conference with his dominance in the height of the Big East’s reign.
But names don’t win games. Big John hasn’t coached since 1999 -- Ewing hasn’t coached in college ever -- and his influence over the program hasn’t mattered in terms of keeping the Hoyas among college basketball’s elite. The school has dipped significantly. And for almost two decades, Georgetown hasn’t been a top-30 program. It’s made the Sweet 16 just three times and moved beyond that only once since 1997. Ewing has a full-on rebuild in front of him, and who knows if he’s capable of working it.
And that’s why things are finally interesting again, because the program had sputtered into peripheral disappointment in the second half of John Thompson III’s run in D.C. Good hire? Bad hire? This is as debatable a decision as Georgetown could have made. For those on the NBA side of things and certain members of the college coaching community, it’s a promising move. Plenty of others in the business see it as shaky.
In firing his son, Georgetown makes the only possible move to appease Big John. To expect the godfather of Big East basketball to step behind wall and remain silent is to not know that his presence will be felt for as long as he’s breathing -- and even after. Ewing was Thompson’s choice, even if he didn’t make the final call. But remember, this only comes after a few big college basketball names (Notre Dame’s Mike Brey, Texas’ Shaka Smart) said thanks but no thanks.
Ewing, to his credit, has worked for 15 years at the highest level to get to this point. He’s openly spoken about his desire to be an NBA coach, and maybe this is the way he’ll get that gig eventually. Cutting his teeth in the pros won’t guarantee success with running a college program, because the two jobs are so incredibly different, but his work ethic and preparation can’t be denied. Ewing probably decided that he had to take this job because it would be the only job he’d get as a head coach in the foreseeable future.
Ewing, a gentle giant and one of 50 most talented basketball players in history, gets to attempt to wake the sleeping giant that is Georgetown. That is compelling because it has the potential for a great story. It also has the potential to be disastrous. The Big East just got more interesting as well. The conference has been one of the three best in America since realignment turned it into a 10-team league. Two founding members of the conference, St. John’s and Georgetown, have opted to bring in their best players ever in to run their teams. For Chris Mullin at St. John’s, that’s meant 22-43 through two seasons.
If you want to be skeptical of the move, that’s fair. But nobody knows if this is the right or the wrong call. Ewing’s smart. He obviously understands the school, its mission and what that administration is looking for. Georgetown has failed to sell tickets to fill up Verizon Center in recent years. That will change next season, but beyond that, winning will ultimately dictate sales, of course.
The most important aspect of this will be the staff Ewing hires. His name will not bring in recruits. And if Ewing was hired based on name, he was hired for the wrong reason. If he was hired for his attachment to the John Thompson era, that’s even worse.
Ewing should have been hired because of the administrators’ trust and belief in his acumen as a coach. And now Ewing has to assemble the right staff. Georgetown isn’t going to be good again just because its greatest player is its latest coach. Ewing needs at least one former head coach, someone with a lot of experience. He needs an elite recruiter to navigate the difficult reality of networking in Washington and the surrounding areas. Doing that will be more challenging for Ewing than trying to beat Villanova, Syracuse and Xavier.
Georgetown has never again been as good or feared or relevant as it was when Ewing turned the program into one of the most talked about teams in all of American sports. He probably won’t be able to get the Hoyas back to that place, but by this point, he’s earned a chance to try. This is a ruling undeniably touched with nostalgia. It’s a decision that could set back Georgetown another five years.
But I can’t say it’s a great ball or a bad call. I can say that Ewing, now 54, has earned the right to try. In that regard, there is no better place to start because he has no softer place to lose. And he’ll never be seen as the failure there. No matter how this goes, they’ll always love Pat in in the District just the way they’ll always love John. Clinging to the past is how we got to this point to begin with.
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